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Where We Got the New Testament

Right Rev. Henry G. Graham

(Chapter IV, "The Church Compiles the New Testament," of his book Where We Got the Bible: Our Debt to the Catholic Church)

Now we know that the Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament were read aloud to the congregations of Christians that met on the first day of the week for Holy Mass (just as they are still among ourselves), one Gospel here, another there; one Epistle of St Paul in one place, another in another; all scattered about in various parts of the world where there were bodies of Christians. And the next question that naturally occurs to us is, when were these separate works gathered together so as to form a volume and added to the Old Testament to make up what we now call the Bible? Well, they were not collected for the best part of three hundred years. So that here again I am afraid is a hard nut for Protestants to crack, viz. — That though we admit that the separate works composing the New Testament were now in existence, yet they were for centuries not to be found altogether in one volume, were not obtainable by multitudes of Christians, and even were altogether unknown to many in different parts of the world. How then, could they possibly form a guide to Heaven and the chart of salvation for those who had never seen or read or known about them? It is a fact of history that the Council of Carthage, which was held in 397 A.D., mainly through the influence of St Augustine, settled the Canon or Collection of New Testament Scriptures as Catholics have them now and decreed that its decision should be sent on to Rome for confirmation. No Council (that is, no gathering of the Bishops of the Catholic Church for the settlement of some point of doctrine) was ever considered to be authoritative or binding unless it was approved and confirmed by the Roman Pontiff, while the decisions of every General Council that has received the approval of Rome are binding on the consciences of all Catholics. The Council of Carthage, then, is the first known to us in which we find a clear and undisputed catalogue of all the New Testament books as we have them in Bibles now.

It is true that many Fathers, Doctors, and writers of the Church in the first three centuries from time to time mention by name many of the various Gospels and Epistles; and some, as we come nearer 397, even refer to a collection already existing in places. For example, we find Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, after the Council of Nicea applying to Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, and a great scholar, to provide fifty copies of the Christian Scriptures for public use in the churches of Constantinople, his new capital. This was in 332 A.D. The contents of these copies are known to us, perhaps (according to some, even probably) one of these very copies of Eusebius's handiwork has come down to us; but they are not precisely the same as our New Testament, though very nearly so. Again, we find lists of the books of the New Testament drawn up by St Athanasius, St Jerome, St Augustine, and many other great authorities, as witnessing to what was generally acknowledged as inspired Scripture in their day and generation and country; but I repeat that none of these corresponds perfectly to the collection in the Bible that we possess now; we must wait till 397 for the Council of Carthage before we find the complete collection of New Testament books settled as we have it to-day and as all Christendom had it till the sixteenth century, when the Reformers changed it.

You may ask me, however, what was the difference between the lists of New Testament books found in various countries and different authors before 397, and the catalogue drawn up at the Council of that date? Well, that introduces us to a very important point which tells us eloquently of the office that the Catholic Church performed, under God the Holy Ghost, in selecting and sifting and stamping with her Divine Authority, the Scriptures of the New Law; and I make bold to say that a calm consideration of the part that Rome took in the making and drawing up and preserving of the Christian Scriptures will convince any impartial mind that to the Catholic Church alone, so much maligned, we owe it that we know what the New Testament should consist of and why precisely it consists of these books and of no others; and that without her we should, humanly speaking, have had no New Testament at all, or, if a New Testament, then one in which works spurious and works genuine would have been mixed up in ruinous and inextricable confusion.

I have used the words 'spurious' and 'genuine' in regard to the Gospels and Epistles in the Christian Church. You are horrified and hold up your hands and exclaim: 'Lord, save us! Here we have a Higher Critic and a Modernist.' Not at all, dear reader; quite the reverse, I assure you. Observe, I have said in 'the Christian Church' — I did not say 'in the Bible', for there is nothing spurious in the Bible. But why? Simply because the Roman See in the fourth century of our era prevented anything spurious being admitted into it. There were spurious books floating about 'in the Christian Church', without a doubt in the early centuries; this is certain, because we know their very names; and it is precisely in her rejection of these, and in her guarding the collection of inspired writings from being mixed up with them, that we shall now see the great work that the Catholic Church did, under God's Holy Spirit, for all succeeding generations of Christians, whether within the fold or outside of it. It is through the Roman Catholic Church that Protestants have got their Bible; there is not (to paraphrase some words of Newman) a Protestant that vilifies and condemns the Catholic Church for her treatment of Holy Scripture, but owes it to that Church that he has the Scripture at all. What Almighty God might have done if Rome had not handed down the Bible to us is a fruitless speculation with which we have nothing whatever to do. It is a contingent possibility belonging to an order of things which has never existed, except in imagination. What we are concerned with is the order of things and the sequence of history in which we are now living and which we know, and which consequently God has divinely disposed; and in this providential arrangement of history it is a fact, as clear as any other historical fact, that Almighty God chose the Catholic Church, and her only, to give us His Holy Scriptures and to give us them as we have them now, neither greater nor less. This I shall now proceed to prove.

(i) Before the collection of New Testament books was finally settled at the Council of Carthage, 397, we find that there were three distinct classes into which the Christian writings were divided. This we know (and every scholar admits it) from the works of early Christian writers like Eusebius, Jerome, Epiphanius, and a whole host of others that we could name. These classes were (1) the books 'acknowledged' as Canonical, (2) books 'disputed' or 'controverted', (3) books declared 'spurious' or false. Now in class (1) i.e., those acknowledged by Christians everywhere to be genuine and authentic and to have been written by Apostolic men, we find such books as the Four Gospels, 13 Epistles of St Paul, Acts of the Apostles. These were recognized East and West as 'Canonical', genuinely the works of the Apostles and Evangelists whose names they bore, worthy of being in the 'Canon' or sacred collection of inspired writings of the Church, and read aloud at Holy Mass. But there was (2) a class — and Protestants should particularly take notice of the fact, as it utterly undermines their Rule of Faith, 'the Bible and the Bible only' — of books that were disputed, controverted, in some places acknowledged, in others rejected; and among these we actually find the Epistle of St James, Epistle of St Jude, Second Epistle of St Peter; 2nd and 3rd of St John, Epistle to the Hebrews, and the Apocalypse of St John. There were doubts about these works; perhaps, it was said, they were not really written by Apostles, or Apostolic men, or by the men whose names they carried; in some parts of the Christian world they were suspected, though in others unhesitatingly received as genuine. There is no getting out of this fact, then: Some of the books of our Bible which we, Catholic and Protestant alike, now recognise as inspired and as the written Word of God, were at one time, indeed for long, viewed with suspicion, doubted, disputed, as not possessing the same authority as the others. (I am speaking only of the New Testament books; the same could be proved, if there were space, of the Old Testament; but the New Testament suffices abundantly for the argument.) But further still — what is even more striking and is equally fatal to the Protestant theory — in this (2) class of 'controverted' and doubtful books some where to be found which are not now in our New Testament at all, but which were by many then considered to be inspired and Apostolic, or were actually read at the public worship of the Christians, or were used for instructions to the newly converted; in short, ranked in some places as equal to the works of St James or St Peter or St Jude. Among these we may mention specially the 'Shepherd' of Hermas, Epistle of Barnabas, the Doctrine of the Twelve Apostles, Apostolic Constitutions, Gospel according to the Hebrews, St Paul's Epistle to the Laodiceans, Epistle of St Clement, and others. Why are these not in our Bible today? We shall see in a minute. Lastly (3) there was a class of books, floating about before 397 A.D., which were never acknowledged as of any value in the Church, nor treated as having Apostolic authority, seeing that they were obviously spurious and false, full of absurd fables, superstitions, puerilities, and stories and miracles of Our Lord and His Apostles which made them a laughing-stock to the world. Of these some have survived, and we have them today, to let us see what stamp of writing they were; most have perished. But we know the names of about fifty Gospels (such as the Gospel of James, the Gospel of Thomas, and the like), about 22 Acts (like the Acts of Pilate, Acts of Paul and Thecla, and others), and a smaller number of Epistles and Apocalypses. These were condemned and rejected wholesale as 'Apocrypha' — that is, false, spurious, uncanonical.

(ii) This then being the state of matters, you can see at once what perplexity arose for the poor Christians in days of persecution, when they were required to surrender their sacred books. The Emperor Diocletian, for example, who inaugurated a terrible war against the Christians, issued an edict in 303 A.D. that all the churches should be razed to the ground and the Sacred Scriptures should be delivered up to the pagan authorities to be burned. Well, the question was what was Sacred Scripture? If a Christian gave up an inspired writing to the Pagans to save his life, he thereby became an apostate: he denied his faith, he betrayed his Lord and God; he saved his life, indeed, but he lost his soul. Some did this and were called 'traditores', traitors, betrayers, 'deliverers up' (of the Scriptures). Most, however, preferred martyrdom and, refusing to surrender the inspired writings, suffered the death. But it was a most perplexing and harrowing question they had to decide — what really was Sacred Scripture? I am not bound to go to the stake for refusing to give up some 'spurious' Gospel or Epistle. Could I, then, safely give up some of the 'controverted' or disputed books, like the Epistle of St James, or the Hebrews, or the Shepherd of Hermas, or the Epistle of St Barnabas, or of St Clement? There is no need to be a martyr by mistake. So the stress of persecution had the effect of making still more urgent the necessity of deciding once and for all what was to form the New Testament. What, definitely and precisely, were to be the books for which a Christian would be bound to lay down his life on pain of losing his soul?

(iii) Here, as I said before, comes in the Council of Carthage, 397 A.D., confirming and approving the decrees of a previous council (Hippo, 393 A.D.) declaring, for all time to come, what was the exact collection of sacred writings thenceforth to be reckoned, to the exclusion of all others, as the inspired Scripture of the New Testament. That collection is precisely that which Catholics possess at this day in their Douai Bible. That decree of Carthage was never changed. It was sent to Rome for confirmation. As I have already remarked, a Council, even though not a general Council of the whole Catholic Church, may yet have its decrees made binding on the whole Church by the approval and will of the Pope. A second Council of Carthage over which Augustine presided, in 419 A.D., renewed the decrees of the former one and declared that its act was to be notified to Boniface, Bishop of Rome, for the purpose of confirming it. From that date all doubt ceased as to what was and what was not 'spurious', 'genuine', or 'doubtful' among the Christian writings then known. Rome had spoken. A Council of the Roman Catholic Church had settled it. You might hear a voice here or there, in East or West, in subsequent times, raking up some old doubt or raising a question as to whether this or that book of the New Testament is really what it claims to be or should be where it is. But it is a voice in the wilderness.

Rome had fixed the 'Canon' of the New Testament. There are henceforward but two classes of books — inspired and not inspired. Within the covers of the New Testament all is inspired; all without, known or unknown, is uninspired. Under the guidance of the Holy Ghost the Council declared 'This is genuine, that is false'; 'this is apostolic, that is not apostolic.' She sifted, weighed, discussed, selected, rejected, and finally decided what was what. Here she rejected a writing that was once very popular and reckoned by many as inspired and was actually read as Scripture at public service; there, again, she accepted another that was very much disputed and viewed with suspicion and said: 'This is to go into the New Testament.' She had the evidence before her; she had tradition to help her; and above all she had the assistance of the Holy Spirit to enable her to come to a right conclusion on so momentous a matter. In fact, her conclusion was received by all Christendom until the sixteenth century, when, as we shall see, men arose rebelling against her decision and altering the Sacred Volume. But, at all events in regard to the New Testament, the Reformers left the books as they found them, and to-day their Testament contains exactly the same books as ours, and what I wish to drive home, is that they got these books from Rome, that without the Roman Catholic Church they would not have got them, and that the decrees of Carthage, 397 and 419 A.D., when all Christianity was Roman Catholic — reaffirmed by the Council of Florence, 1442, under Pope Eugenius IV, and the Council of Trent, 1546 — these decrees of the Roman Church and these only are the means and the channel and the authority which Almighty God has used to hand down to us his written Word. Who can deny it? The Church existed before the Bible; she made the Bible; she selected its books, and she preserved it. She handed it down; through her we know what is the Word of God, and what the word of man; and hence to try at this time of day, as many do, to overthrow the Church by means of this very Bible, and to put it above the Church, and to revile her for destroying it and corrupting it — what is this but to strike the mother that reared them; to curse the hand that fed them; to turn against their best friend and benefactor; and to repay with ingratitude and slander the very guide and protector who has led them to drink of the water out of the Savior's fountains?

Right Reverend Henry G. Graham (1874-1959) was a Scotch Presbyterian minister of a family line of Presbyterian ministers going back unbroken through two centuries. He converted to the Catholic Church at age 29, was ordained a presbyter in 1906, and consecrated a bishop in 1917.
Where We Got the Bible: Our Debt to the Catholic Church was originally published in 1911 © B. Herder Book Company. It is now available, in its twenty-second printing, from Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., P. O. Box 424, Rockford, Illinois 61105. Catholic Answers published a revised edition in 1997, together with Graham's conversion story, "From the Kirk to the Catholic Church", which Catholic Answers published in two installments in This Rock magazine in 1995.
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(Created May 24, 1997; revised March 1, 2001)